Food and family cook up a comforting independence at RHS Culinary Arts


Liz Kirchner

It’s 10 a.m., the sun is splashing on stainless steel countertops, whisks are clattering, cleavers are whacking, and young people are reading morsels of recipes to each other “…we need garlic…” and “…where is the cayenne?”

Radford High School’s culinary arts class is whipping up béchamel for an elegant mac and cheese and sautéing a creole mirepoix for a savory gumbo. And that’s just for starters.

In the busy kitchen, these young people in their black aprons and soufflé-like touques are part of a national trend of increasing enrollment in culinary arts classes. For many in that shining kitchen, it’s a national trend that for some will end in professional kitchens, for most in healthier, more culturally aware adulthood, but it’s a trend that began at home and is building marketable skills.

RHS’s Culinary Arts program is led by Melissa Martin who, in a maroon Hokies T-shirt is changing the gas canister of a cooking station burner while nodding to another team and saying, “That’s right…keep on stirring while you add the milk.”

“I have 60 students in intro to culinary arts and 15 in culinary arts,” she said. “They are tested on many thing like knife skills, reading and following a recipe, and soups, sauces, stocks, baking, measuring, the taste, texture and the look of food.”

In the kitchen, there is teamwork is all around. Young people are whisking and working together: a ”soft skill” businesses report as a valuable, but often missing ingredient in young graduates.

“They’re tested on how well they work together, time management, cleaning up after themselves, and much more,” Martin said. “I have pretty good kids.”

In the kitchen, problem solving is everywhere.

At one table someone says, “Go ahead and add your celery, green peppers…Oh wait we don’t have green peppers…Don’t worry. We just go on.”

Chopping green onions, freshman Jerzee Johnson explains, “We’re making a Creole sauce,” he said, pausing to help when junior Isaac Chrisley asked, “How much cayenne do I use?”

“Two tablespoons,” Johnson said.

Other groups are making macaroni and cheese preparing a roux, cooking the flour in butter that will thicken with milk to a creamy sauce. One person whisks the butter and flour while another pours the milk.

“Slowly” said Samira Baylor, a senior, “and whisk at the same time.”

The milk sizzles.

In her 9th year of teaching, her second at RHS, Martin’s skills, her master’s degree is in career and technical education.

“I taught child development, wellness and fashion and interior design,” she said. “Others have been chefs and switched careers. That’s a route too. Even if it’s not culinary, if you have a good Home Economics.”

Cooking may be popular, but 50 percent of states report a shortage of qualified Family and Consumer Sciences instructors.

She doesn’t like the old fashion term “home economics.” Today’s Family and Consumer Sciences classes cover topics like personal and family finance, nutrition, responsible parenting, and peaceful conflict resolution.

And like the aroma of baking bread, Martin’s promoting Culinary Arts through clever outreach that brings cooking out of the kitchen and down the hall.

Classes bake casseroles for purchase on Fridays (they will warm them up for you) to take home, brings surprises to the teachers’ lounge, and hosts Pastry Fridays.

Investing in Culinary Arts, the school replaced the pine cabinets and Formica of the old kitchen with stainless steel last year surveying the students to help design the remodel.

The farm-to-table links and the Maker movement, foodie culture, and international baking shows are raising appreciation for nutrition, self-sufficiency and handcrafting. Cooking at home is recognized as promoting health and family bonding, lowering obesity, kids who cook become more likely to try new food and nutrition becomes more relevant.

Freshman Whyheam Edmonds, whisking a cheese sauce said he came to cooking with experience at home.

“I like cooking and eating with folks and family,” he said.

In the classroom beside the busy kitchen, students talk about why they took Culinary Arts.

Maddy Alexander, in her second year taking the class, serves as a head chef with other experienced students helping first year students figure out where things go and how much to add, she said.

“Because I love to eat,” she said. Beside her, Kayla Calfee laughs and says, “I think it’s cool learning about the different cultures. We’ve made Mexican and Chinese…so many things.”

A second year student named Samantha Haines with a gold bow in long brown hair said, “It’s a really good field to go into after high-school and during and after college. There are a lot of opportunities to thrive and grow in it.”

Everyone laughs and says, “You sound so professional!”

And some become professional. The National Restaurant Association predicts 1.7 million new restaurant jobs will be created in the decade leading up to 2026.

Sizzling and clanging in the kitchen behind him, Austin Minnick, as a junior sees cooking as a career choice.

“When I was younger I always enjoyed cooking with my mom and when I saw they offered the class, I took it and ended up liking it a lot more than I expected and I decided it would be something I would enjoy doing for the rest of my life.”

Barely 17, Minnick explains “passion” as the key ingredient in good cooking.

“You have to have a passion for cooking,” he said. “It’s not something you can just do to do. If you don’t really have a passion for it, it’ll show. You don’t really care about it. If you care, it’ll taste better,” he said. “You’ll try hard to make everybody enjoy it.”

He still cooks with his mom. Last night, they made chicken potpie. No longer a woman’s place, the kitchen is full of young men. One of several guys in the class, Spencer Purdue is working with Kayla and Emma Calfee and Erin Lineberry.

Purdue said he cooks at home, but nothing fancy.

“Hamburgers eggs and pancakes. Nothing too crazy,” he said. “It’s just something me and my grandma did together so I just really like it.”

“Awwww!” the girls said.

“This is new though,” Purdue said. “Cooking food like this is exciting getting to learn how to cook more professionally.”

Emma Calfee agrees.

“I’ve always cooked with my mom when I was little, to be prepared once I got out of college and was living alone,” she said.

Adding two cups of broth to the onions and celery sends up a billow of fragrance and sizzle.

Oh! Do you smell that?” Kayla said. “Oh that smells so good!”